Mexican states: 13/32
Pre-jungle insect bites: 0
Post-jungle insect bites: approx. 345,423
“I’m dirty and salty and damn it feels good to be a cyclist again,” I wrote with distressingly bad grammar on the first night after we left Guadalajara. From the very start of this trip, hosts and acquaintances in big cities have always been confused by my lack of desire to go out and see the sights. Museums, nightclubs, historic centres and markets scream at me from the WikiTravel pages and I can’t really muster the enthusiasm to go out and see them. Cities are a place of rest and creature comforts for me – regular showers, unlimited food options, a roof over my head – and it’s sometimes hard to explain that the act of just getting from one place to the other is adventure enough.
So it was in Guadalajara as it is in all cities, but while we were there we wanted to check out some charrería, which is basically a Mexican rodeo. Cowboys compete in a series of tasks that all have something to do with horse riding or bull riding or cow roping or horse roping or a combination thereof. What’s more, they have to perform it all in the wide-brim sombreros of TexMex cliche and spangled mariachi suits and ties. In Guadalajara it takes place once a month of a Friday night and it appears that no one actually cares about the competition at all. The stadium fills with young men in boots and the occasional hat who eye off the glammed-up women, strutting about in tight jeans and low-cut tops. Overpriced tequila flows liberally and a band plays banda hits from a stage.
Banda is everywhere in Mexico and I have to admit that after my initial distaste, it’s starting to grow on me. Three months of exposure will do that to you. Here’s a taste – I admire these guys for keeping straight faces as they do the two-step in those suits.
So while everyone’s drinking and dancing and singing along, serious young cowboys compete down in the sand. On this occasion the charros seemed pretty young and the general consensus seemed to be that they weren’t particularly good. Not that anyone was really paying attention, and even the charros themselves didn’t seem too interested. They regularly appeared in the stands to drink and chat up girls, and after about an hour the women began streaming out back where the charros were only too happy to give them rides on their strutting horses. So it seems whole thing is really a courtship ritual and once we realised we weren’t actually supposed to be watching the show, we had a bunch of fun learning to dance bachata and banda which, it turns out, are accessible for the clumsy gringo.
We in the “west” are a little obsessed with our idea of personal space. If you were to ask a stranger to dance at a party or in a bar in Australia (itself a truly fossilized notion) you certainly wouldn’t kick things off by placing your hands upon her back and clutching her against you as your hips swirl about in time. You barely know each other, for chrissake.
“But that’s the whole fun of dancing,” said Robbie the next day. “It’s all about being close to and moving with someone else’s body.”
I’m not just talking about dancing with this personal space thing. Even in the U.S. I found people were much more approachable and eager to talk than back in Australia, where men in particular drive themselves to depression rather than dare express any sort of emotion. And Mexicans are off on a whole other level of their own when it comes to chatting with strangers. The result is what we’ve come to call “the interview,” where a local will approach to ask where we’re from, where we started, how long we’ve been riding for, where we’re going and how much our bikes weigh. They’ll rotate their fists in a sort of pedaling motion and say something like “mucho ejercicio!” Sometimes in the more isolated towns, we have to explain that Australia isn’t connected to the American continent and that we flew in a plane to get here. This happens at least three or four times per day. There are plenty of good interviews, where people will talk about something – anything! – other than the aforementioned topics and perhaps even suggest campsites further down the road. And there are bad interviews, like the man in Romita who demanded I speak to him in the rain, and whose idea of good conversation was to tell me about a Chilean cyclist who’d been killed by a truck in Thailand that week.
Things are changing, but whole families still occupy single houses and we’ve met plenty of young people who won’t leave their parents’ house until they get married. Not much room for “personal space” there. One man’s wish to party and blast music at 3am overrides his neighbours’ right to sleep, and everyone simply accepts that this is the way things are. You can protest, as I did when a group of kids did just that at a campground in Xilitla, but it only leaves me feeling a bit precious and ridiculous.
So we rode out of Guadalajara and across Jalisco’s tequila country to Guanajuato, where an afternoon storm blew in from behind to push us down off the hills and onto flat farmland. At one point I found myself flying down the hill 50 metres behind the storm front, watching the rain whirl about on the road up ahead.
The storm rolls in.
Guanajuato is the capital city of the state of the same name, and it’s a pretty special place. You know how the historic centres of famous cities – say, Florence or Cartagena – can feel a little dead when they’ve been completely given over to tourism? This is not so in Guanajuato, and the reason is students. Guanajuato is a city of twisting alleyways lit by lamps at night, hidden plazas shaded by trees and echoing with the splash of fountains, stately old churches and colourful buildings jigsawed among one another. But best of all, people actually live there. Our couchsurfing host was Alejandra (look her up if you’re in town) and her apartment seems like the focus for a huge community of local and foreign students and travellers. There are no supermarkets nearby, but walk two minutes down to Mercado Hidalgo and you’ll find little old ladies selling avocadoes and pineapples on the street while inside the butchers, fishmongers, creameries, fruterias and vegetable stands jostle for your attention.
Guanajuato from above.
Virgen de Guadalupe likeness #43,523,498,312,408
Sitting at a cafe on a plaza, a brushed and shampooed dog approached to say hello. Alejandra addressed it by name – “Rufina” – and we asked who its owner was.
“Oh no, Rufina is a street dog,” she replied. “But we know all the street dogs around here. People always leave out food and water and make sure they’re taken care of.” Rufina moved on to a bar next door, where a waitress gave her a scratch. There was also a German shepherd that used to live with Alejandra, who she called Hector. The new owners named him Nemo, which she scoffed at. Hector/Nemo’s owners had let him out into the teeming streets to walk himself, and trusted that he’d be back eventually. Everyone in the street said hello as he trotted by. What a lovely town.
“Let me know when you come back. I’ll definitely be here,” said Alejandra when we left and I don’t doubt it. Why would you ever leave such a place?
Since Guadalajara we’d been riding in a generally north-east direction towards the Gulf of Mexico. “North-east!?” I hear you scoff. “But that’s not the way to Patagonia!” Indeed it isn’t, but there are two things you should know about Mexico:
a) It’s HUGE, and
b) there’s cool stuff to see EVERYWHERE
So way back in Aguascalientes we’d been convinced to detour up and over to a place called La Huasteca. The region is named for the indigenous people who still live there and are distinct from the Aztecs, and whose features and culture are discernible in the faces, language and food. La Huasteca covers most of the state of San Luis Potosi and a couple of others, and goes from deserts up north to jungle further south.
There was something about San Luis de la Paz that made it feel like the very edge of the central highlands we’d been traversing since Durango. Dust, cacti and rubbish strewn streets didn’t give a good first impression, but we ended up meeting a cycling family who fed us and Luis, the family patriarch, put us up in his bicycle-themed ranch outside town. Grandchildren make up their mountain biking squad – the Chichimecas – and Irena the grandmother told us she spends all day in the kitchen feeding cyclists.
With the Chichimecas.
It was raining when we left Luis of San Luis de la Paz and it didn’t stop all day. We spent most of it climbing a range, and all of a sudden we were in the forest and incinerating our break pads on the long, wet, steep descent into Xichu.
Luis from San Luis had given me a wristband that said I was from the “heart of the Sierra Gorda,” and assured us that if we presented ourselves to the municipal president in Xichu – which you pronounce like you would a sneeze – he would put us up for a night. It was still raining when we rolled into town and, with nothing to lose, introduced ourselves to a dapper security guard out the front of the municipal palace.
He was a helpful chap, and escorted us across the road and up some stairs to an office, where about six men sat about looking bored. I explained that we were a journalist and a lawyer conducting a grand tour of their beautiful nation by bicycle, and we’d been told that this wristband would gain access to some kind of accommodation for the night, free of charge. We didn’t want to cause a fuss, I stressed, but this was what we’d been told.
Well, a man wearing all-denim picked up a phone and started chatting to someone about how “two gringos want a place to stay.”
“Australians,” I corrected him.
“One of them is supposedly a journalist,” he went on, ignoring me.
“And a lawyer!” added one of his associates helpfully. All-denim ignored him too. He seemed sceptical, and rightfully so. Nevertheless, he escorted us down the street to meet a bespectacled man who apparently had the ear of this municipal president. He said that we’d be put up in the Hotel Pancho Villa for a night. All of them referred to their boss – the municipal president – as “Presi,” which I think is adorable.
So that was how we managed to swindle a room each in a nice hotel in Xichu. It rained the whole next day and we did have to pay for our second night, but I guess that was fair. When the señora in charge of the hotel started talking about how she’d heard I was a foreign journalist who was writing about the town, we knew it was time to clear out.
From Xichu onward we bounced along many a dirt road, up and down mountains, along rivers and through villages. There are villages everywhere in this country. No matter how remote or inhospitable the place may be, you can be sure Mexicans will find a way to live there. Where Americans would be a hard people to conquer and subdue because of the sheer number of weapons they all own, Mexicans would be just as hard to control simply because they’re able to live – and live well – just about anywhere. We’ve seen villages in the foggy hollows on top of mountains, on muddy riverbanks, clinging to veritable cliff faces and lodged in saddlebacks. You’d never be able to find them all. If there is an uninhabited 100 square-kilometres somewhere in Mexico that isn’t in Baja California (and it’s only now that I appreciate just how empty and isolated Baja is), you can be assured that somewhere there is a municipal council working right now to rectify the situation.
In the background you can see our road switch-backing its way up the mountain. In the foreground you can see my “Holy shit” face and hat hair.
We sweated our way up into the clouds on the mountain pictured above, and spent the rest of the day in the fog, skirting along the edge of another valley. Campsites are hard to come by in such steep terrain and we ended up sleeping right by the side of the road. This is usually a bit of a no-no anywhere but out here, we were seeing a car every other hour or so. The cloud lifted in the morning and it looked like this:
We hit tarmac again at Conca and followed it to a pretty town called Jalpan, where we stayed with a bloke called Rodrigo at his unfinished hostel/resort on a dam outside town. A few years back Rodrigo rode from Ushuaia, Argentina to Mexico City and then from Anchorage, Alaska back to Mexico in just nine months. Nine months! It’s taken me two thirds of that time just to get from Vancouver to Mexico City. It took me three months to get from Vancouver to Tijuana (albeit via the Grand Canyon and a few other minor detours). It took Rodrigo fourteen days to ride between the same two cities. I’m not sure if it’d be for me, but you can’t deny that the man is a gun.
We couldn’t resist a swim in the clear one.
More climbing. 15 kilometres of uphill this time.
The first of the three main places we wanted to visit in the Huasteca is called the Sotano de las Golondrinas which, to put it simply, is a hole in the ground. A 500 metre deep, 60 metre wide hole in the ground. It’s hidden in the jungle on some hillside and wasn’t even properly explored until the 1960’s. As you approach the edge, or cling to a tree and peek over the edge, some primal instinct deep inside begins yelling at you to get the hell away. We swore a lot, listened to the echoes of our shouts and threw sticks in to try and watch them hit the bottom. We always lost sight of them before they did so. A dog who accompanied us to the cave’s edge and back up to the road, who we called Hole Dog, seemed nonplussed by the whole thing but he was also sure to keep his distance.
I’ve been wanting to talk about dogs in Mexico for a while and I may as well do so now. Dogs form several central pillars of Mexican society, variously playing the roles of pet, alarm system, pest, vulture or any combination of the four. So in addition to people watching, we do a hell of a lot of dog watching as well.
Mexicans everywhere, of all social classes and backgrounds, seem to be in general agreement that they live in a dangerous country. Whether they’re right or not – and that is not a question I feel qualified to answer – it means a stroll around the middle or upper-class residential suburbs of a Mexican city is always a stressful experience. High, spiky fences, barbed wire and barred windows are all very inviting but the cherry on the cake is the dog who inhabits the front yard (which is usually just a carport). These under-exercised, over-sized specimens have been trained as guard dogs, and as a result the pedestrian finds himself under constant assault from a chorus of mean, snarling muzzles struggling to rip your hand through iron bars. The barking of those in your immediate vicinity sets off everyone else in the neighbourhood, and so it goes.
In the smaller towns, the guard dogs are almost always found on the roofs of houses, and we have therefore labelled them “roof dogs”. There are ferocious junk-yard dogs who are, thankfully, kept in check by a chain – at least most of the time – and the homeless roaming dog who just likes to bark at everything. In La Huasteca we found the dogs, like the people, to be much more reserved, tranquil and less interested in cycle tourists, and a new label was given: the road dog. The road dog (who can also be a driveway dog) lies on the bitumen or dirt road, watching the world through slitted, disinterested eyes. Our favourite is the dog-about-town, a serious specimen who trots down the street, ignoring the smells of rubbish and shops and the salutations of his companions because, evidently, he has very important business that he must attend to elsewhere. “Don’t talk to me,” he seems to say. “I’m extremely busy and I’ve no time for dilly dallying.” There is also a countryside version of the dog-about-town, which I like to call “the dog abroad”. The dog abroad seems happier and more carefree than the dog-about-town, but no less focused on the task at hand – whatever it is.
Individual dogs have also made their own imprint on the Mexican leg of this big old ride of mine. Outside Guanajuato we offered kind words and encouragement to Cuota Dog, who was alone and wet beside a busy toll road. We encouraged Hole Dog to come along with us to Patagonia and after we left Guanajuato, one fellow managed to follow us for five kilometres or so before he tired out and gave up. In Guerrero Negro, Baja California Sur our day wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t spot Big Mama, a tiny sausage dog who trotted the dusty streets like she owned the place, tits jangling about joyously from her lengthy belly. “Oh hey Big Mama!” we’d call and she’d saunter on by, smiling at the streets and the characters in it.
The second place we wanted to visit in the Huasteca is a town called Xilitla, a pretty ordinary sort of town overlooking a canyon (magnificent views of a canyon really are nothing special in La Huasteca). On the outskirts there is a place called Las Pozas de Edward James, a garden of sorts that blends into the jungle around it. Edward James was a Scot who, upon inheriting a fortune from his father and uncle respectively, decided to become a patron of the arts. He was partial to a bit of surrealism and spent his time in Europe hanging out with Dali and Magritte and a bunch of others whose names I didn’t recognise. In the 1940’s he came to Mexico and began working on his own masterpiece of sorts, a garden of concrete structures that mimics ancient ruins of indeterminate origin and the shapes found in the jungles around it. I don’t pretend to know or care much about the background, but in the 60 years since its construction (and apparently it remains unfinished) the jungle has had time to absorb the concrete. Staircases lead nowhere and walls jut out at all sorts of strange angles for no discernible reason. It’s a strange, special place.
Surrealist bike wheel
In Australia such a place would be fenced off to protect it from the public, and the public from its myriad of alarmingly dodgy building techniques. There would be security cameras, fences, signs and fines for infringements. The garden would be preserved in its original form for eternity so that it could give a kind of low-level enjoyment to people now and centuries later, who would look upon its marvels from afar.
But because it’s in Mexico, you can climb all over the structures as I’m sure Edward James intended. You can swim in the pools and shower under the waterfalls, and the only sign you see politely asks you to refrain from carving initials into the plants and concrete installations. For the most part, people heed the signs. We drank tequila by one pool and a group of young men sat by another smoking a joint, and nobody bothered us because we weren’t bothering anyone else. In this country people are trusted not to be idiots and for the most part, they aren’t.
We left Xilitla the next day, onto dirt roads that took us through valleys and over sierras once more.
Santa Muerte – “Holy Death” – in a roadside shrine. Catholicism and local pre-Columbian religions get all mixed up together in La Huasteca.
Camping at a lookout over Jacala, Hidalgo.
Robbie tests his brakes on a hail mary corner.
Not long after I took the photo above we camped at a spot overlooking the canyon and the peaks beyond. Once night fell we watched a monumental lightning storm battering and striking away at the land below. I’ve never seen a war and I’m not sure I’d want to, but watching the lights and hearing the booming of the thunder must be about as close as you can get without, you know, all the horror.
The light in the sky is lightning and the light on the bikes is Robbie with a head torch.
The third and final place we wanted to visit in the Huasteca was called the Grutas Tolantongo. On the canyon’s floor there is a river that is usually clear and perfect for swimming, but the rain had flushed it with silt. Luckily, further up the canyon’s wall they’ve built a series of pools – “pozitas” – to catch thermally-heated water that leeches out of the mountain. I didn’t take any photos, but imagine sitting among the weird brain shapes and stalactites in a hot bath, looking out over a huge canyon. We did that for a whole day, until an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in and the sky turned grey and the lush trees overhead became sharp and threatening.
The “where are we going to sleep tonight?” game takes us to all sorts of interesting places.
From the Grutas we climbed back into the desert, and a few days later here we are in Mexico City, which is the biggest city I’ve ever been in. There’re as many people here as there are in the whole of Australia, if not more. We weren’t allowed to take our bikes on the train and therefore had to ride all the way into the centre of a city whose greater metropolitan area has a population of some 22 million people. It’s not the most relaxing way to spend a rainy Friday evening.
Robbie and I’s duo will double in size here. James has already arrived and will ride with us until June and Robbie’s brother Simon will be here within the week for his first ever bicycle tour. He’ll be here for three weeks. In my more egocentric moments it’s fun to think of myself as a baton being handed between friends – new ones and old ones – as I make my way south, but as Joff the penny farthing world tourer said in Mazatlan, “everyone’s trip is their own”. I’ve now had company on this trip as long as I’ve been alone and I don’t really talk to Baxter anymore. My family will probably be relieved to hear that. Robbie and I have reached the point where we can spend the morning cooking breakfast and packing up tents with only a few words exchanged and be comfortable in that. He’s been good for my sanity, overall, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who thinks that about him. When I’m losing it over Mexican towns and their speed bumps (at two every block) or just cold and wet and hungry, he’s a beacon of good sense and rational judgement when basic faculties desert me. I know I’m able to get by on my own in times like these, but they’re a whole lot more fun when you’ve got a mate. Soon I’ll have three of them!
We had so much fun in this country’s northern and central states, but all everyone has wanted to tell us about is how amazing Oaxaca, Chiapas and the Yucatan is supposed to be. Mexico’s already gone and set the bar pretty high for itself. 10,000 kilometres are coming up soon, and I wonder what it’s going to look like when the old odometer clicks over to five digits. Come to think of it, I wonder what it’ll look like at 20,000?